Blindsight, by Peter Watts (2006).
Score: Astounding, but unnecessarily obscure.
If I hadn’t been assured that this was an exceptional book, I would not have read past the first twenty pages. A guy with half his brain removed, vampires played straight? What in the world? And yes, exceptional is the word, though not always in a good way.
In a future where vampires have been discovered to be an extinct species of hominid, cannibalistic, sociopathic and extremely intelligent, and baseline humans are receding more and more into a massive VR realm called Heaven, a crew of enhanced humans is sent to investigate a potentially alien signal out in the Oort cloud. The story is told by Siri Keeton, who had a radical hemispherectomy as a child and as a result has exceptional, sherlockian analysis skills, but reduced empathy. The rest of the crew are the linguist Susan James and other three personae sharing a body with her, the super soldier Amanda Bates and the biologist with enhanced senses and data processing, Isaac Spintzel, all commanded by the vampire Jukka Sarasti.
Much like Neuromancer back then, the biggest crime of Blindsight is that it’s unnecessarily obscure in its narration (or I am too dumb to understand it, which can also be the case). Almost a third into it I had to put it down and go look up the most basic facts about the plot, such as what the vampires in this were like, what the Icarus Array was, what the matter was with the members of the crew, and when I got the explanation I wondered if the person who wrote it was reading the same book as me because I didn’t seem to understand or retain all the details. It’s a bit irregular in this sense, too. It has some passages that are crystal clear, with meaningful dialogue, and some others just as abstruse as a wannabe constructivist philosopher. I found it especially ironic in all those instances of Siri going: “and now I could see it”, “and now I understood”, followed by two or three thick paragraphs of gibberish. Colour me surprised, I still don’t understand anything. It’s a matter of underdeveloping of the narration and descriptions. Many things are described too vaguely, you need a lot of guessing to follow along. Other authors have managed to construct words and discourses almost as complex without losing the reader trying, such as Alastair Reynolds or China Miéville, even Neal Stephenson pulls it off, and the man is really disperse. See, obscure is not complex, nor deep, nor interesting. Obscure is obscure. But I don’t think Watts is obscure out of arrogance, I’m guessing he overestimated the reader or things just came out like that.
Nevertheless, and unlike wannabe constructivist philosophers, Watts packed Blindsight with content, even if sometimes it doesn’t shine through the actual words on the page. And it’s really the biggest strength of this book, how thoroughly researched it is, and how much meaningful philosophical reflection is contained in it. The transhumanism is only the beginning, and it’s quite heavy: four people living in the body of one, considered people and not a personality disorder, people who have extended virtual senses, others who live their lives as brains in a vat, and obviously, trying to figure out if an alien being is intelligent, sentient or human. But it goes further, into the territory of things like sociopathy and empathy. Is there any difference between something that is empathetic and something that behaves like it’s empathetic? Is sentience a necessary condition for intelligence? For higher intelligence? Are we all Chinese rooms after all? Would it make any difference to me if everyone else was?
And in case you didn’t believe that the neuroscience, physics and biology were researched, the fucker added a whole appendix with almost 150 references to scientific papers. Watts, being a marine biologist, has evolution and physiology all figured out, but went out of his way to do a lot of reading on neuroscience, physics, engineering, what have you. And it’s pretty convincing, at least when you see he actually listed the papers he got the stuff from. I had a couple of instances of “you can’t actually do that… oh, he listed a paper where they tried it out and worked”.
And last but not least, Watts is here Lovecraft’s worthiest heir. The Eldritch abomination and cosmic horror born of his mind are both quite faithful to the original lore and genuinely scary by twenty-first century standards. But I’ll not spoil why. You’ll have to read it yourself.
All in all, is it worth it? Definitely.
Blindsight is released under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded for free from here.
BONUS: If you found the different mental disorders exemplified interesting, you might want to have a look at the recently deceased Oliver Sacks’s book The man who mistook his wife for a hat.